For your first non-executive role, the Chair could make or break your future board career

By Paul Smith, Founder & CEO //

Let me assume that if you are reading this article it means either;

  • you’re close to getting your first non-executive board role; 
  • you may have been offered a seat on the board (pre-due diligence);
  • you are in the interview stages, or;
  • you are already on a board and are interested in what I’ve got to say.

Whatever your circumstances, congratulations!

Your first board role will set you up for your future journey. It will help determine your motivation for a broader board career and it will largely determine your reputation and credibility as a non-executive director.

Choose wisely. 

The right boardroom will make all the difference and the most vital component of that boardroom, that could make or break your first board experience, is the Chair. 

If you get the wrong person you might be excluded from decision-making, belittled for your lack of experience, non-mentored, talked over or worse, talked at.

If you get a good one (or better still a great one), you’ll be encouraged, inducted, mentored, given time to find your feet and most of all, included because of the value, insights and perspectives you bring.

This is what all great Chairs do. They include people. They create a culture in which a board, and every single director, thrives. They also create a culture where management thrives. They stimulate discussion and collaboration but also ensure the board stays on track and gets things done in a timely manner. 

The mistake plenty of boards make is appointing the most ‘experienced’ or senior person as the Chair. Not everyone is built to be a great one. It takes a natural gift for leadership, facilitation, mediation, collaboration, an open-mindset and bundles of EQ (Emotional Intelligence).

If you are in a situation of choosing your ideal board role, please take a good look at the Chair.

These are the top 5 things to look for in a great one.

  1. The Chair is a team leader who acts to guide, facilitate and galvanize the Board, creating and enabling collaboration between the Board and management. They wish to help everyone succeed in their roles and are not in it for glory, power or control. 
  2. The Chair upholds the most professional governance (and personal) standards and takes responsibility for their own behaviour and preparedness, as well as the Board and Management. They also actively encourage and support the preparedness, knowledge and capability development of the entire leadership group.
  3. The Chair holds both the Board to account to their purpose and shared values, ensuring that each Director fulfils their duties and responsibilities.
  4. The Chair is a learner and ensures a health-check and evaluation of the Board’s and Directors’ performance and conduct takes place on a regular basis, so the Board can learn what is working well and what is missing.
  5. The Chair fosters, maintains and ensures that constructive, inclusive and collaborative relationships exist with and between all Directors. They create the space for constructive debate and discussion. They want to hear from everyone else first. However, as needed, the Chair will facilitate change management and address any potential conflicts within the Board.

When being interviewed for a seat in the boardroom, you will also be interviewing the board to determine if they are the right fit for you, your career, your passions and your values. Will you be committed to them and will they be committed to you?

Get a good feel for how the Chair runs meetings and build relationships. If you think something is off, then don’t run a mile until you’ve decided whether you can live with this or not. Some people are happy to get stuck into a boardroom with perhaps a less than positive culture, whilst others are not so inclined.

Whatever you need or want, make sure it’s a good fit. The Chair is the most important person to you in your first role.

For more insights about the boardroom and your governance career, click here.